Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Is sleep deprivation immoral?

I'm going to comment on a post by Steven Wedgeworth:
Unfortunately, his post represents the kind of half-baked reasoning that's used to shame Christians into accepting that position. 
However, in the wake of the recent Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, there are no longer relevant reasons to prevent us from concluding that the United States did participate in torture and that many of the specific forms were unjust and abhorrent. They were evil.
i) To begin with, the Senate report was a partisan hatchet-job. And it isn't just right-wingers like me who think that:
ii) I, for one, don't deny that some methods like sleep deprivation might be classified as "torture." But that just goes to show how morally elastic the definition is. 
As John McCain has ably argued, America has compromised its integrity with the use of enhanced interrogation and thereby weakened the health of the people.
That's an illicit argument from authority. Who made John McCain to be a moral authority on "torture." 
This issue also highlights a more basic one. If you have ever defended an evil action because it satisfied personal revenge or gave you a limited opportunity to indulge violent and bloodthirsty passions, then you must repent. This is not a trifling matter. The torture revelations are but a macro-level version of what goes on in every human heart. Only, in this case, the hateful desires were not suppressed or denied but rather fed. Murder begins with unchecked anger in the heart. Torture comes from elevating hatred, or a false sense of moral entitlement, over the inherent dignity of the image of God. 
That's a scurrilous hasty generalization. Wedgeworth presumes to impute base motives to everyone who defends "torture" of any kind under any circumstance. That's not an appeal to reason. That's not persuasion. It's browbeating people into submission. 
Ask yourselves if you really can and should be defending “rectal hydration.” Why are you not morally shaken by such a practice, or, if you are, why are you still able to overcome that moral compunction?
Why does defending "torture" require me to defend everything that might be classified as torture? Why does defending, say, sleep deprivation require me to defend "rectal hydration"? 
Wedgeworth doesn't bother to explain how one entails the other. He doesn't bother to explain why you can't condemn any form of "torture" unless you condemn every form of "torture." What's the logical or moral basis for lumping all these disparate methods into one package–take it or leave it? It's like saying that unless you're a pacifist, anything goes in warfare. Does Wedgeworth have anything to offer besides disapproving rhetoric? 
In an ethics class with Dr. Derek Thomas, a few students defended the use of torture as a necessary means to an end, and Dr. Thomas rebuked them sternly, stating that he held torture to be an offense against the image of God.
i) How is sleep deprivation an offense against the image of God?
ii) As I've said on other occasions, one problem I have with this ultimatum is that it's counterproductive. If a Christian ethicist tells people that sleep deprivation is never morally permissible, regardless of how many innocent lives that will save, then many people will reacting by saying so much the worse for Christian ethics. That's a reason not to take Christianity seriously. 
Far from acting as a moral restraint, if you tell people that under no circumstances is sleep deprivation ever permissible, they just give up trying to be conscientious. At that point there are no brakes on what they are prepared to do. They become morally thoughtless because you give them no better option. 
…there is a definitive moral line along the spectrum (even if we argue where it precisely is), and utilitarian defenses can never justify crossing that line. It does not matter if an action or policy “works” if it is truly evil. It does not matter if an action or policy “promotes American interests” if it is truly evil. It does not matter if an action or policy is associated with a particular political party or patriotic sentiment if it is truly evil. It is never right to do wrong. 
I agree with him that some lines cannot be crossed. However, to say that consequences are only morally relevant in utilitarianism  is philosophically uniformed. 
Moreover, Wedgeworth doesn't bother to explain why consequences should never be a factor in moral deliberations. 
The use of sexual assault and threats of sexual assault (and murder!) against family members are the kind of enormities which make rational men go mute in shock and moral disbelief...Surely sexual assault and threats against a suspect’s family cross the moral line and are wholly out of the question for reasonable people to consider.
i) Critics like Wedgeworth lack the patience to draw important ethical distinctions. But their intellectual impatience betrays a lack of moral seriousness. If you take right and wrong seriously, if you take moral deliberation seriously, then you can't allow yourself these intellectual shortcuts. I'm struck by how often those who invoke moral rigorism skimp on analytical rigor. 
ii) Notice how he lumps two distinct cases into one, as if physical harm and threatening harm are morally equivalent. Is there no moral difference between actually harming someone and threatening to harm someone? Why should anyone accept Wedgeworth's glib equivalence?
iii) Moreover, who is being verbally threatened? Is this directed at the terrorist, or a family member? Are they telling the terrorist that unless he cooperates, they will harm a family member? Or are they holding a family member hostage, whom they threaten to harm unless the terrorist cooperates? Are those morally equivalent situations?
iv) Is there a moral difference between a threat which the interrogator intends to carry in case the terrorist refuses to comply, and an empty threat which is credible to the terrorist, even though–unbeknownst to him–the interrogator has no intention of making good on? Seems very different to me.
v) As a rule, I think family members are off-limits, but it's easy to think of exceptions. What if terrorism is the family business. What if his father or twenty-something brother is a terrorist, too? Would it be wrong to "torture" them to make him break? 
Or, to take a tougher case, is it intrinsically wrong to scare the child of a terrorist to make him break, if that will save the thousands of innocent lives? 
Sometimes parents deliberately scare their children as a deterrent. They warn them about how dangerous or painful a particular activity is. Suppose you live in Darwin, Australia. That's infested with saltwater crocodiles. Surely it would be prudent to tell your kids scary stories about saltwater crocodiles to make them cautious. 

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